Story last updated at 2/26/2014 - 1:49 pm
So many small islands in Southeast Alaska were dedicated in the 1920s and early 1930s to blue fox farming. It was fashionable in that era to wear fox fur coats, stoles, cuffs and collars. Two small islands, protecting Zarembo Island's St. John Harbor, nurtured foxes for their furs.
St. John Harbor indents the northwest side of Zarembo Island, off Sumner Strait and almost opposite the southern entrance to Wrangell Narrows. Today it is a favorite harbor for fishermen, fish tenders, vessels involved with nearby logging, and visiting yachts waiting for high tide to go through the narrows to Petersburg.
A number of years ago, my husband Frank and I, traveling aboard the Twinkle, decided to see if any remains could be found about 70 years after the farms were abandoned. Northerly Island - as the name implies - is an island that is at the northern mouth of the harbor. Officers on the gunboat USS Adams named it in 1885. Southerly Island is on the southwest entry. It too was named by the unimaginative officers of the Adams.
In the early 1920s, farming foxes on an island (where the animals could not swim away) became popular. W. W. McLaughlin, formerly in charge of the Petersburg Signal Corps office, decided Northerly Island suited his purposes. In 1921, he leased the island from the federal government and spent the next year building a dock and float to facilitate loading and unloading supplies.
We found where the dock had been located. The pilings were no longer visible, but we found a sturdy rock wall alongside a flat, rocked platform leading into the water. The location surprised us.
Why had he chosen this site? We knew from experience that southeast winds hit the island. Years before, on a sunny December trip, we tied to the face of the U.S. Forest Service dock on the westerly side of the bay. In the night, a strong southeaster blew up, slamming the Twinkle against the dock. The boat survived the night and in the morning we began, (after looking out at mountainous waves in Sumner Strait), a search for a protected anchorage.
The fox farm dock was on the southeasterly side, and it was uncomfortably rough there. We anchored on the westerly side of Northerly Island and still encountered wind-whipped water. With a smaller boat or skiff, the fox farmer had more choices than we did.
Around 1922, McLaughlin leased Southerly Island. He purchased thirty breeding pairs of foxes from the San Juan Fox Company in Pybus Bay on Admiralty Island. He turned them loose on both Northerly and Southerly islands. The Pybus Bay farm had figured out that selling breeders was more profitable than raising foxes for fur. A seven-month old pair for breeding, not fur, was going for $350 to $400, according to an article in the Ketchikan newspaper. It is hard to imagine McLaughlin paid that much for his stock.
It takes about three years for a fox's fur to mature for pelting. Pelts were sold for between $50 to $250 apiece, depending on the depth and color of the fur. McLaughlin and his wife were said to live on-site to care for the foxes.
In 1923, C. Hoff and his 12-year-old son cared for the foxes during the summer. The foxes had to be constantly fed and checked for diseases. Young kits were cared for until they were able to survive on their own. This enabled their mother to remain with them instead of foraging for food. If she left, the young were unprotected from predators such as eagles and weasels.
We hoped to find the 3-foot cauldrons (or gruel cookers, as some called them) in which the food was prepared. No luck.
Since the food consisted of fresh or frozen fish and seal meat or illegally shot deer, cold storage plants were built at larger farms. Those who couldn't afford such a luxury fished and hunted during the year.
Meat was cooked with rice, oatmeal, shorts and middlings. The latter two are leftovers from milling wheat into white flour. Middlings contain protein and the shorts are fine bran particles and germ. The 1922 Ketchikan paper gave the estimated cost per animal at $8 but didn't say how long the animals were kept.
The land above the dock area was covered with brush. We worked our way up a slope and found foundation timbers and other rotting pieces of milled lumber. A twin-bed spring rusted in the moss, the only surface relic of the house.
In 1924, the leases for the islands were in the name of W. L. Hoff. There may be a typo in the initials, or the 1923 caretaker was a relative of this Hoff. When the Petersburg Forest ranger visited in August 1925, Hoff was in Seattle and there weren't many foxes. The farm must have continued into 1926 because the Wrangell-West Coast mail boat advertised a monthly stop at St. John Bay.
By 1929, the fox farm was abandoned. Hoff's operations probably became a casualty of over-production caused by too many people entering the business in the 1920s.
Over 300 islands had been leased all over Alaska. Many farmers went into the business as speculators thinking they would make big cleanups in a short time. The price of furs fell and the market became uncertain. In 1925, many growers killed a great number of foxes that were culls or not-prime fur. These were dumped on the market, making prices fall.
We continued to search the area round the dwelling ruins but found nothing more on the forest floor. We didn't get to the east side of island to see if there were remains of the wooden feed boxes that would have been hidden in the woods to prevent the eagles from swooping in. Behind the remains of the house, a powerful southeasterly wind had blown down small, but tall trees, like a pick-up sticks game, across the hillside making walking impossible.
Every time we take the Twinkle to St John's (as locals call it), we look at the islands and wonder at the tenacity people had in those days.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing and Alaska history. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at email@example.com.